Israeli forces are "maintaining intense intelligence activity" in Syria and have "quietly" begun working with villagers there unallied to either the rebels or President Bashar Assad's regime amid mounting fears that the Syrian civil war will spill over its borders, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
"Several Israelis who follow Syria closely said Israeli security forces had already been quietly working with villagers who support neither the government nor the rebels, supplying moderate humanitarian aid and maintaining intense intelligence activity," The Times reported.
Israel has said it does not want to intervene in its northern neighbors' civil war, but has maintained that it has the right to defend itself if attacked.
The New York Times report on Thursday indicated that Israeli officials have discounted the idea of a buffer zone in Syria, both because it would be seen as a major incursion into the country's territory and spark immediate friction with Assad's forces. The Times said that one idea being considered by Israel now was the creation of a "proxy force" inside Syria by arming villagers near the border.
“A buffer zone doesn’t work there,” the Times quoted Ehud Yaari, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as saying. “If you would try to create a buffer zone, it immediately gets you into proximity and friction with main Syrian military forces and camps.”
Fighting has spilled into the Golan Heights a number of times in recent months, in the form of errant shells and gunfire. Assad's government earlier this week assumed responsibility for the first time over the firing at Israeli forces in the area, the third such incident this week. It was not clear whether Israel was the target, or if the fire was just a spillover.
Following the incident, the Artillery Corps returned fire with precision Tammuz missiles. IDF officials said that a military response to the firing incidents on the border was being considered in detail and in accordance with a situation assessment in progress.
The IDF believes the assumption of responsibility for the fire is part of a new policy adopted by Assad since the aerial attacks in April to open a front against Israel on the Golan Heights.
IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said on Wednesday that Bashar Assad's regime is arming itself with high-quality Russian technology, including S-300 missile systems.
An Israeli official told The New York Times on Wednesday that if Assad indeed attacks Israel, "he will risk forfeiting his regime. The official added that Israel is considering further strikes in Syria in order to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons into Hezbollah's hands.
"The transfer of such weapons to Hezbollah will destabilize and endanger the entire region,” the official said. "If Syrian President Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate."
“Israel has so far refrained from intervening in Syria’s civil war and will maintain this policy as long as Assad refrains from attacking Israel directly or indirectly,” the official added.
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